“Every girl should know how to fight,” says Fernanda Maciel with fierce conviction. The Brazilian ultra-endurance athlete, who has broken records for running up and down the highest mountains in both Africa and South America, grew up in a family of fighters. Her father and grandfather were champion martial artists, and as a young girl she trained in the family ring at home, later going on to compete internationally as a gymnast.
“Knowing how to defend yourself is amazing,” she says. “It makes you feel confident and self-protected. If you know that physically [you are strong], you also feel it in your mind, as well as emotionally and spiritually. I think it’s very important for a woman.”
Maciel is speaking from her remote wood-and-stone house in the Spanish Pyrenees, where single-track paths wind up steep inclines, the air is crisp, and a nearby river marks the border of neighbouring Andorra. As well as being raised to fight, she was also brought up to revere the natural world, with frequent family camping trips in the mountains. That’s why she went on to become an environmental lawyer in São Paulo, one of the world’s biggest and busiest cities.
It wasn’t the experience she was hoping for, though, and she became frustrated by the political compromises her organisation was forced to make. Although she would clear her head by running in national parks on weekends, she also felt trapped behind a desk: “I was in a city, with papers in front of me, indoors. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not the best way to explore myself.’”
Already a passionate runner, she decided to quit her job in 2006 and moved to the village of Coll de Nargó, population 40, where she now spends around four hours a day training for ultra-endurance races around the world. These involve not just running but also clambering up and down rock faces and navigating jagged landscapes of ice, all at perilously high speeds.
Since moving out of the city and dedicating herself to pro racing, Maciel has won first place in competitions around the world, including the North Face Endurance Challenge Brazil 2015, and the Everest Trail Race 2013. In 2016 she became the only woman to scale and descend Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, in less than 24 hours, and the following year she became the fastest woman to run up and down Mount Kilimanjaro.
Grit plays an important role in these spectacular feats, but what’s even more fundamental, she says, is continuing to aim high — higher, in her case, than most people would deem possible. “Some people just stop,” she says. “They don’t dream. Why not? You have just one life, and time flies. Life just goes easier when you start to dream.”
Seeing other women tackling outsized challenges can help with setting these aspirations. Maciel remembers her first race in New Zealand, and the role that champion ultra-runner Anna Frost played in spurring her on: “She’s a great athlete. I finished third and for the whole race I was trying to follow her. It was pretty hard.”
She advises other women, once they’ve figured out their goals, to hold on to them tightly: “Take out everything that’s not good for you and just focus. You need it to be really clear.”
Maciel has stripped everything from her life that doesn’t help her achieve her dreams. Each morning involves a yogic Sun Salutation, a “big American coffee,” and two and a half hours of biking up and down steep mountain paths. She runs and climbs at high speed for another 90 minutes every afternoon, and mixes in some skiing when her knees need a break. She hasn’t watched TV since 2005, and meditates regularly, occasionally going on 10-day silent retreats: “It’s important to be focusing on the mountain, my sensations and the world.”
Her meditation and religious beliefs help Maciel get through the pain that’s an ever-present part of life as an endurance athlete, from altitude sickness to the broken fingers and torn ligaments she suffered by slipping on ice while running in Andorra in 2017. “When you have bad moments, you need to know that everything passes,” she says. “I try to enjoy the good moments because I know that they will also pass. I breathe, focus not on the pain but on nature, and after the pain you start to feel the good sensations, as well. It’s a cycle. It’s like life.”
On top of all the trials of the sport, female endurance athletes deal with additional challenges, Maciel says: fewer sponsorship opportunities, less money, occasional resentment from men they overtake on the trails. Women also tend to have less choice when it comes to specialised equipment in the right size, like jackets designed for exceptionally high altitudes or the right shoes for mountain running.
But the situation is “slowly changing”, she says. “Brands like The North Face have started to show the power of women,” says Maciel, adding that the brand has made more and more gear for women each year. “It’s growing a lot, which is amazing for us. Before, no one would pay attention.”
Maciel is a proud supporter of a partnership between The North Face and the Outward Bound Trust, which helps women in the UK get out and experience the wild beauty of the natural world. “When girls explore more and become more confident, it’s amazing,” she says. “They find the power you have when you take risks.”
And Maciel should know; her path isn’t an easy one. There are constant dangers and pressures, including injury, avalanches, isolation, the daily grind of training and sticking to a strict diet free of sugar, gluten and most animal products. But the highs are worth it.
When she’s racing against other athletes, as she did at the Transgrancanaria in February 2018, she experiences intense elation when she crosses the finish line. But when she’s doing her record-breaking mountain runs up the world’s highest peaks, it’s all about that moment when you reach the summit.
“Everything is so small. You don’t have any oxygen. It’s windy and extreme, and you have been training for many years, and then you realise, ‘Wow. I’m here, and I could do that.’ The impossible became possible. Moments like these are like a dream. Time just stops.”
Rather than being surrounded by all the chaos and noise of an organised race, these challenges are all about racing the clock: trying to beat the current record for reaching a famous peak and returning to the start point. “I’m alone in the mountains. The feeling is more pure and wild because nobody is watching you. It’s just you and your dream.”
She Moves Mountains, stories of women who make it happen, is produced in partnership with The North Face.